Zipf on language change/structure

Matt Shibatani matt at RICE.EDU
Wed Nov 20 16:11:24 UTC 2002

Hi folks,

     In connection to the recent posting by Bill Croft and the recent
interest in a usage-based explanation of language change-frequency inter
alia (Bybee and Hopper 2001)-I would like to know how Zipf's early work on
frequency and language structure has been (re)assessed, if at all. I know
Jack Hawkins is trying to formalize Zipf's insights and to connect them with
the processing theory. We also recall Haiman's (1983) utilization of Zipf's
economic motivation in his discussion of reflexives/middles and reciprocals.

   The following is the quote from the relevant sections from Zipf, G.


Matt Shibatani

"In view of the evidence of the stream of speech we may say that the length
of a word tends to bear an inverse relationship to its relative frequency;
and in view of the influence of high frequency on the shortenings from
truncation and from durable and temporary abbreviatory substitution, it
seems a plausible deduction that, as the relative frequency of a word
increases, it tends to diminish in magnitude. This tendency of a decreasing
magnitude to result from an increase in relative frequency, maybe
tentatively named the Law of Abbreviation." (38)

   "The law of abbreviation seems to reflect on the one hand an impulse in
language toward the maintenance of an equilibrium between length and
frequency, and on the other hand an underlying law of economy as the causa
causans of this impulse toward equilibrium." (38)

    "The magnitude of complexity of speech-configuration which bears an

inverse (not necessarily proportionate) relationship to its relative

reflects also in an inverse (not necessarily proportionate) way the extent

which  the category is familiar in common usage." (272)

"The degree of distinctness of meaning.seem[s] to bear an inverse
relationship to

F[requency] and C[rystalization] [of the configuration]."  (157)

"the minimal degree of complexity necessary for comprehensible speech

  between persons reflects the degree of unusualness (in their group) of the

 experiences spoken of, or, somewhat more precisely stated, the unusualness

 of speech about those experiences." (273)

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